Summer Reading Challenge UPDATE

Last month I had a great visit to mid-coast Maine with a fellow writer, where I worked on getting a draft of a new poetry book shaped up. I also brought along with me six books of poetry by others from my summer reading challenge list – mostly I read them with coffee coffee first thing in the morning either on the red sofa or out on the pier that came with the house we rented. Rough life, yeah, I know.

Reading individual collections was helpful to me as I finished up this one of my own – though I do recall other times when reading individual collections while shaping my own was actually not helpful. In any case, this time I did some reading, and it was wonderful. I recommend all of these books without hesitation. All strong, all containing multiple poems worthy of dog-earing. Yes, I dog-ear. No, I don’t know why I would ever do something so unkind to something as lovely as a book of poems.

Teresa Leo, Bloom in Reverse (Forty-three poems, twelve dog-ears)

Wow, these are some great poems on classic themes of love and death and estrangement and grief and loss. Poems of unthinkable pain and miraculous beauty. Poems of survival. These are poems of powerful feeling, and reading the book through in one sitting was an intense emotional experience. These poems do not mince words, but they are so artful from the level of the line (love all those couplets so well-wrought!) to the level of the scene-shaping.

Meg Day, Last Psalm at Sea Level (Eight dog-ears)

I was swept away by the voice of this collection. Like, tidally. I am still trying to resolve what I feel is this simultaneous urgency/calm in these poems. There is also great balance between what I’d call intellectual and emotional/spiritual concerns in these poems. Love the remix of John Donne’s sonnet in “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” as well as the various “when I am ________” poems which explore facets of all different kinds of identities.

Alice Friman, The View From Saturn (Fifty-one poems, nine dog-ears)

I am embarrassed to say that I only really started reading Alice Friman’s work last year when I picked up Zoo in a used bookstore and had my damn mind blown. Some poets whose work blows my mind aren’t doing work that I, myself, am doing or aspire to do (stylistically, content-wise, whatever) – but hers are poems I admire, am amazed by, wish to have written, strive to write. She’s in my pantheon, now, filling a big gaping space I didn’t even know was there. Well. Maybe I knew. This is her most recent book, which I snagged at AWP and got signed by the author herself, who is so NICE.

Erin Belieu, Slant Six (Twenty-three poems, five dog-ears)

It’s my tradition in recent years to spend the fourth of July in Western Massachusetts at an annual (been going on for over twenty years, I’m sure) round-robin reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” hosted by poet and editor Jan Freeman. Belieu’s book would, I believe, also make for an apt Independence Day celebration. I will be reading “When at a Certain Party in NYC” aloud to everybody I see for the rest of the summer. Into the fall, probably. It is hilarious and rings so, so true.

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (One giant, endless, dog-ear of unabashed gratitude)

A few poems into this amazing collection, my favorite of the week, I had to stop folding pages down, because folding ALL (okay ALMOST all) the pages down defeats the page-folding purpose. Read this on one of the two prettiest days of my time at the shore, and so my own good mood and gratitude were sort of underscored or amplified by Gay’s vibrant odes and earthy, sensual catalogs, and ebullient thank yous. I came to this book already a fan of Gay – his first book, Against Which, is outstanding. I didn’t think it could be bested, but maybe it has.

J. Allyn Rosser, Mimi’s Trapeze (Sixty poems, four dog-ears)

In contrast to Leo’s couplets, this book (also from the Pitt Poetry Series) contains mostly single-stanza poems, which makes the variants on that choice (such as “Housing the Id” and “Miniature Histories of the World”) stand out sharply. It’s a big book – a lot of poems, five sections – and it goes so many places, in and out of so many different voices/tones. My favorite in the collection is “Quake,” near the end, with a group of people’s “sense of precarious communion” both broken and strengthened by an earthquake: “just the grave world / catching us off guard— / grabbing each of us by the shoulders / and giving a shake, saying only / Here. Now. Take a good look.”

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